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Vaccine exemptions worry Indiana school, health officials

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Education,Health,Associated Press,Indiana

FRANKLIN, Ind. — The number of Indiana students seeking exemptions from state vaccination requirements is sparking concern among school and health officials.

State health officials say the exemptions make it difficult to achieve what's known as "herd immunity." When the majority of a school is vaccinated, it's less likely for those who aren't to contract illnesses. Students who are allergic to vaccines or who have weak immune systems often rely on herd immunity to prevent illness.

"When we don't have a high enough rate for vaccination coverage, we can't achieve (herd immunity) in our population," said Dana Greenwood, state health department chief nurse immunization consultant.

Indiana has changed many of its vaccine requirements in recent years. Last fall, about 100 students in Johnson County's Clark-Pleasant district were sent home from school because they hadn't received all of the shots the state required, including additional vaccines for tetanus/pertussis, meningitis and chickenpox.

School nurses are required to check vaccine records to ensure students are current. But the waivers allow some students to attend school even without the immunizations.

Medical waivers are granted for those who are allergic to one or some of the shots or who have weak immune systems and can't tolerate exposure to the weakened viruses or antibiotics used to create vaccines. These students need to supply a doctor's note each year because some medical conditions can be outgrown, Greenwood said.

The second exception is for students with religious objections to vaccines. They only need a note from their parents stating that the vaccines conflict with their religious beliefs.

Indiana Association of School Nurses president Chris Amidon said schools have no way to verify whether parents truly have a religious objection or simply just don't want to vaccinate their children.

"In most cases people choose not to do that, they're saying religious freedom to do so," Amidon said.

In Johnson County, more than 340 of the nearly 25,500 public school students have received waivers from the requirements, the Daily Journal reported. The majority — 258 — are for religious reasons, while the rest are medical waivers.

Libby Cruzan, the nurse for Greenwood schools, said talking to some parents with religious objections can be a delicate balancing act.

"If somebody presents to me a religious objection, I can't try to talk them into getting their immunizations," said Cruzan, whose district has 24 students with religious waivers and seven students with medical waivers.

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